It is a chronicle of depravity and suffering. Like most UN documents, it has the prosaic title: “Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
But it is in fact a portrait of the injustice and pain visited upon the North Korean people by their own government.
After one year and 320 victim interviews, the Commission released a 400-page report accusing the North Korean government of ‘crimes against humanity’: execution, rape, forced abortions, torture, slavery and starvation.
The report concluded that, “These crimes are committed against inmates of political and other prison camps; against starving populations; against religious believers; against persons who try to flee the country - including those forcibly repatriated by China.”
And, “The gravity, scale, duration and nature of the unspeakable atrocities committed in the country reveal a totalitarian state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world….The country is a dark abyss where the human rights, the dignity and the humanity of the people are controlled, denied and ultimately annihilated.”
And in a clear reference to the Nazi Holocaust, “The unspeakable atrocities that are being committed against inmates of the kwanliso political prison camps resemble the horrors of camps that totalitarian States established during the twentieth century.”
Of all the governments in all the world, this is the one that commits the most grievous harm to the most people. Twenty-five million North Koreans live in a state of constant fear and deprivation.
North Korea is a state, "that does not content itself with ensuring the authoritarian rule of a small group of people, but seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens' lives and terrorizes them from within."
One witness, a survivor of a North Korean prison camp, told the commission of seeing a guard beat a nearly starving woman who had recently given birth, then force the woman to drown her baby. Others told of being imprisoned for watching soap operas, trying to find food for their families, traveling without permission or having family members considered suspect by the government.
All of this has one cause and one purpose: to perpetuate the stranglehold on power of the Kim Stalinist dynasty in Pyongyang. Begun by Kim Il Sung, passed to his son Kim Jong Il, and now in the fists of the grandson, Kim Jong Un, the regime brings its full force down upon even the smallest offense. State surveillance permeates private lives and virtually no __EXPRESSION__ critical of the political system goes undetected – or unpunished.
The report noted that the DPRK consists of a rigidly stratified society with entrenched patterns of discrimination. Discrimination is rooted in the songbun system, which classifies people on the basis of State-assigned social class and birth, and also includes consideration of political opinions and religion, and determines where they live, work, study and even whom they may marry.
Violations of the rights to food and to freedom of movement have resulted in women and girls becoming vulnerable to trafficking and forced sex work outside the DPRK. Many take the risk of fleeing, mainly to China, despite the high chance that they will be apprehended and forcibly repatriated, then subjected to persecution, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention and, in some cases sexual violence. “Repatriated women who are pregnant are regularly subjected to forced abortions, and babies born to repatriated women are often killed,” the report states.
In a letter to Kim Jong-un, the Commissioners stated that it would recommend referral to the International Criminal Court “to render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for the crimes against humanity….”
The government of China also received a letter, accusing it of “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.” Chinese authorities engage in constant persecution of North Korean refugees, forcibly returning them to face imprisonment, torture and execution.
The Commission calls on the Security Council to adopt targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity, stressing that sanctions should not be targeted against the population or the economy as a whole.
“The fact that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea…has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community,” the report stated. “The international community must accept its responsibility to protect the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from crimes against humanity, because the Government of the DPRK has manifestly failed to do so.”
The Commission’s report is a benchmark for human rights activism on North Korea. But will it lead to significant relief for the people of North Korea?
Much depends on what the United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly do next. To do justice to the Commission’s report and to the people of North Korea, the representatives of the governments at any and all UN bodies should officially and forcefully condemn the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Pyongyang. Second, they should decide to refer members of the North Korean government to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. Third, UN agencies in North Korea providing food and development assistance should also see to the welfare of the country’s vast prison population.
Finally, China must be held to account for its collaboration in the crimes and abuses committed by Pyongyang. If Beijing is serious about its role as a fully responsible member of the international community of nations, it must demonstrate leadership by refusing to forcibly return North Koreans, and by pressing Pyongyang to cease its reign of terror.
Now is precisely the time for all of us who profess to care about freedom, human rights and bringing an end to atrocities to stand up for the people of North Korea. And we must insist that the United Nations do what it was created to do: protect a population whose government does such great harm.